by Trevor Claringbold
How many people speed down the motorways to the south of France and completely miss some of the country’s – if not Europe’s – most beautiful and spectacular scenery? Of course, it takes a bit longer, but there’s no better way to see the real countryside than following the smaller roads that have been used for centuries, through the towns and villages that so characterise this region.
This route takes you from Geneva, passing Lake Annecy and following the Route de Grande Alpes, to finally arrive at the chic Mediterranean resort of Nice.
Geneva is an enjoyable place to spend a day, or at least an afternoon, before heading south towards the towering peaks of the Alps. A small road via Creseilles takes you the pretty way to the popular mountain resort of Annecy. Time it right, and you could be treated to one of the memorable sunsets that are a feature of this perfectly situated town. The sun sinks slowly casting long shadows across the shimmering waters of the lake, while the mountains on either side become golden in the fading light. The peaks still glistening white with snow, and all around you seems frozen, still, and silent for a moment. You won’t get that on the motorway!
Annecy has been a stopping place on the Alpine route since Roman times, and today is an idyllic base for those who want to explore the surrounding area. The pretty little lanes around the castle, the window boxes full of brightly coloured flowers, and the long wide promenade that stretches along the edge of the crystal clear lake, are all captivating. The canals through the town add to the air of tranquillity, and the little 12th century fortress that sits on an island in the middle of the trickling waters houses a small but impressive museum.
There are a good selection of mid range hotels, such as the Hotel du Nord, with nice views across the lake. If you are seeking something at the higher end of the market, just along the road is the very chic and expensive l’Imperial Palace. Nice though this is, along with the adjacent casino, it does look somewhat out of place at night with its whole outline picked out with Las Vegas style lights.
In the morning the lake looks wholly different, as the thin layer of mist hovers across it, and the mountains have their tips in the clouds. But it all adds to the special atmosphere you only get in the high Alps, and the crisp, cool air has a real freshness about it.
Leaving Annecy, drive south along the west bank of the lake. The beauty of driving yourself is that you are free to stop as often as you like, and, if you have a passion for photography, then a route like this provides numerous opportunities too good to miss. Castles and chateaus, cascading waterfalls, and spectacular vistas, are all abundant.
In the village of Duingt there is the opportunity to hire a small boat and head out on the lake. Looking back towards the shore, you’ll see two more chateaux that presumably guarded this peninsular at one time.
From Albertville you pick up the famed Route des Grande Alpes, or N902 to give it its less romantic title, which winds through the steep valleys taking you higher and higher. Passing Moutiers, Aime, Bourg St Maurice, it eventually arrives at the well known ski resort of Val-d’Isere, in the heart of the National Parc de la Vanoise.
Its not until you stop and begin to walk around that you realise just how high you have now climbed. The air has an icy bite, even on sunny days, but is incredibly fresh and invigorating. The scenery is stunning, with panoramic views for miles around. Rough, vast, rock faces, with snow still covering the higher areas, and fast flowing rivers tumbling over uneven courses in the deep valleys below. On the pale green grassy slopes are all manner of log cabins – each different, but equally attractive.
As a town, there is not much to detain you in Val-d’Isere, so head on, and up, over the highest pass in the Alps. At almost 2800m driving the Col de l’Iseran seems more of an adventure than a sightseeing journey. The viewpoint near the summit will take your breath away, and if it weren’t so cold and windy it would be a great place to stay longer just soaking up the atmosphere. On the rare days when the weather is warm and calm, it’s a perfect place to just wander and marvel at the surroundings.
When it’s time to head down the switchback roads, you soon reach Bessans. This is more what you expect an Alpine village to look like, with stone buildings, chalets, and an attractive old church. A far cry from the mass-produced ski towns you’ll have passed on the way.
The accommodation here is also far more reasonable, and after breakfast a short stroll along the river Arc is the perfect start to your day before taking to the road. The route briefly crosses into Italy, at Susa, before again returning to France via Briancon, Guillestre, and Barcelonnette. The mountain passes here are just as spectacular, with twisting roads and deep ravines, but already the rocks change to an almost reddy colour, with thick forests lining the rivers.
The tall trees cling to steep slopes, giving occasional glimpses of the rivers below as the ripple over rocks and fallen logs. The roads here are mostly well maintained, quiet, and with frequent stopping places which allow you to take in every aspect of the beautiful countryside.
As you continue south, along the exquisite Verdon valley route, you enter the Alps-Provence region. Once more the ambience changes, the rocks become darker, more menacing, and stark. The villages become smaller, and sparser, and the cliffs seem to be closer to the roadsides. It’s no less appealing, however, and in truth it’s these constantly changing surroundings that make this drive so memorable.
The high Alps route ends at Grasse, where you join the main road south to Nice. This is busier than the alpine road, but still twists and turns between towering dark rocky cliffs, and plunges into sudden tunnels. Overhanging rock faces are covered with wire netting to stop falling rocks from landing on the road, and the traffic vies for space with the railway in the narrowest parts of the valley.
Before too long you’ll enter the busy, chaotic, and somewhat disappointing outskirts of Nice. After so many miles of stunning scenery, the city suburbs leave you with a sinking feeling. A few miles later, though, the Mediterranean appears majestically before you, bringing a wholly different, but still magnificent, set of surroundings.